I Had a Kid in High School. Here’s How it Changed My Whole Life.
My daughter is now 17, the same age I was when I had her.
When my daughter was a year-and-a-half old, she was admitted to the hospital on New Year’s Eve for a severe infection that was going to require surgery. And I cried. A lot. But not just because I was worried about her—because I was supposed to go to a party that night.
I don’t blame you for thinking right now, “That’s terrible. What kind of parent would be worried about a party in those circumstances?” And you’re right. It was selfish, shortsighted, and something that an angsty teen would pull, because that’s exactly what I was.
Just before I turned 17, I missed a bus and it changed my life forever. That bus ride would have taken me to Planned Parenthood for an abortion. But the clock kept ticking and the minutes passed and the next thing I knew, I was still pregnant.
It wasn’t some great moment of revelation that led to me becoming a teen mom. It was a series of small decisions—not using a condom; not asking someone, anyone, about birth control pills; not catching that bus.
From the moment I’d missed my period, I flung myself hard into the first stage of grief. Because that’s exactly what I was doing. I was grieving the loss of the person I thought I’d been my entire life up until that point. I was the smart girl who got good grades and a perfect score on Florida’s standardized test in 10th grade and who didn’t really cause trouble.
I wasn’t the “pregnant teen”… until I was.
But in hindsight, that identity had been slipping away from me for a while. I’d moved from a small town in Vermont to a college town in Florida when I was 12. My dad died a year later, and my relationship with my mom went from barely existent to relatively toxic pretty quickly. I discovered older boys with bad reputations and started skipping school with them. Soon enough, I completely stopped going to school altogether.
Through all those changes, though, one thing remained: that infamous teenage feeling of invincibility. I could leave my mom’s house at 16 and couch-hop around town with my older boyfriend and miss my junior year of high school and still be “the smart girl,” right?
But then it was five weeks without a period, then six, then seven.
At some point, I told the aforementioned older boyfriend that I thought I was pregnant, but I cut the conversation short by jumping to abortion as the logical next step. He didn’t argue. I never even took a pregnancy test before calling to schedule the appointment that I never showed up for. I must have told him that I hadn’t gone, but I don’t remember any big discussion about what that really meant.
So I spent my 17th birthday throwing up bile nonstop, which is when I discovered the first lie about pregnancy and motherhood that society harbors: “Morning sickness” is more like “open 24/7 sickness.”
For six months, I didn’t tell anyone else about the pregnancy and, instead, isolated myself as best I could. The boyfriend and I were homeless for much of that time, jumping from house to house based on who’d let us stay for a few days. I was barely eating so I actually lost weight. Soon, the lack of self care landed me a kidney infection, a trip to the ER, and a long overdue conversation with my mom that went something like this:
“I need to know if I have health insurance. I’m at the hospital and they’re asking for my information.”
“What? Why are you at the hospital?”
“I have a kidney infection.”
“A kidney infection? But…”
“Well, also, I’m six months pregnant.”
Obviously, tact was also not a skill I’d developed yet. My mother—a true New Yorker who is the definition of straightforward —jumped straight into planning mode. As an adopted child herself, adoption was her obvious recommendation.
“No,” I told her. “I’m keeping the baby.”
I don’t think I’d said that out loud to anyone until that point. For me that declaration was the first of many, many steps towards motherhood to come.
By that point, the boyfriend had a fast food job and I had managed to convince the Social Security office that I lived independently, and therefore was entitled to the monthly payment from my dad’s death that my mom had previously been receiving for my care.
We were able to use that money to rent a townhouse, so when I left the hospital—after a slew of exciting new experiences that included visits to a nutritionist, the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) office, and the Department of Health and Human Services—I started actually cooking meals for myself. To be honest, it was a lot of baked potatoes and steamed broccoli. But it was more meal-like than the occasional fast food burger I’d been eating.
I finally reached out to friends and told them I was pregnant, which led to what I’m convinced was one of the most awkward baby showers in history. Everyone tried to balance the traditional excitement for the new arrival with the whole what-will-this-do-to-your-life-as-a-teen-mom thing. One friend gifted me a winter coat in a size 2T for the baby, who was due in June in hot, humid Florida because teens don’t even know what to buy for babies, let alone how to raise them.
As my due date approached, I balanced loyally watching American Idol (the show had debuted that year and I’d been relegated to bed rest) with an attempt at some domestic activities. I cleaned. I organized. I got my hands on a sewing machine and made several horribly proportioned baby dresses and one pretty-okay baby blanket (which my daughter still has today).
But besides that blanket, basically everything has changed since then.
Shortly after my daughter was born, her biological dad (a.k.a., the now ex-boyfriend) and I split up, and I ended up in my own place with my daughter.
I got myself back into school through a dual-enrollment program where I was able to earn high school and college credits. So although I didn’t graduate with my original class, by the next year, I had both a high school diploma and an Associate of Arts degree.
Then, a chance opportunity to leave Florida (a place I never really loved living) came one day while I was working as a hostess at a TGIFridays. One of the managers was moving to Colorado (a place I’d always wanted to live) with his wife and two kids. They’d had someone ready to move in with them as a nanny, but the person backed out at the last minute. I was happy to step in, I told him, as long as my two-and-half-year-old daughter could come too.
It was a move that probably wouldn’t have ever happened without my daughter there as a motivator to take a risk on a better life for us and pure luck that I was in that kitschy restaurant dining room at the right moment.
Before long, I was packing up a car full of belongings and a toddler and driving toward the Rocky Mountains. I’m pretty sure everyone I knew in Florida was taking bets on how long it would be before I came back. But that only kicked my motivation to prove people wrong into high gear. And that’s exactly what I did.
I finished my Bachelor’s degree while working part time as a receptionist. While I was in school, a classmate who’d noticed my inclination to write about food (I’d stuck with cooking and had moved way beyond baked potatoes by then) encouraged me to apply for a job covering the local dining scene, and I got the gig.
Along with a full-time career in marketing, I still write about food on the side, which also means I regularly get to share meals with incredibly smart writers who often leave me wondering how I got here after being a homeless pregnant teen. But then I remember that it was a whole lot of hard work that I was able to tackle because I’d already taken on life’s toughest job: parenthood.
When you become a mom at a young age, you hear “You look too young to have a kid that old,” “Are you her sister?” and “So how old were you when you had her?” uttered over and over by everyone from the grocery store checkout clerk to guys you’re on dates with. At first, those questions were accompanied by feelings of shame. But eventually, I learned to respond with confidence, to embrace my new identity with confidence, and to approach life with confidence.
It wasn’t all accomplishments and happy times along the way. I slept in the living room of a small apartment I could barely afford so my daughter could have the one bedroom to herself. I watched as my friends traveled abroad and wondered if I’d ever be able to take a vacation. I spent a lot of time saying, “No, I can’t, I don’t have a babysitter,” and “No, I can’t, I don’t have the money.” And later, I saw my peers having babies and openly celebrating that new life in a way I didn’t let myself nearly two decades ago.
My chubby-cheeked baby is now 17 herself, the same age I was when I had her. She plays trombone and throws shot put and tells awesome jokes, and is looking at colleges. We spent her birthday thrift shopping and eating frozen yogurt and doing face masks—a far cry from my 17th birthday filled with pregnancy-induced vomiting.
At one point, my daughter thanked me for spending the day with her and for making it fun and for being a “great mom.” Yes, I did actually leave the hospital that New Year’s Eve night all those years ago to go to a party (that wasn’t even that great). But it seems she’s forgiven me. And I’ve forgiven me too.
And for more ways to have a good relationship with your teens, here are 40 Fun Ways to Bond with Your Teenage Kids.
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